Standing before a now-gone parking lot turned giant sequoia grove, Sue Beatty beams as she talks about a three-year restoration project in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.
The removal of nearly an acre and a half of asphalt to protect roots and help water better flow to ancient sequoias in Yosemite National Park is the highlight of her career as a restoration ecologist for the National Park Service.
"To see the transformation of the lower grove area from a parking lot to giant sequoia habitat has just been incredible," Beatty said, "and to know that people are going to be enjoying it in a much more pristine way than arriving in a parking lot."
The historic Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias reopens to the public 9 a.m. Friday.
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It's home to around 500 mature giant sequoias and is the largest and best-known of Yosemite's three sequoia groves.
Beatty led a tour of the grove Tuesday with Frank Dean, president of the Yosemite Conservancy, the park's nonprofit partner. The Park Service and Yosemite Conservancy each contributed $20 million to the restoration project, the largest in Yosemite's history.
Dean said the grove's compelling history made raising money for the project surprisingly easy.
The massive trees and Yosemite Valley were first protected by landmark legislation signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864.
"These trees were the thing that really got people's imagination and attention," Dean said. "They almost couldn't believe the stories about the size of these trees. People had been to Europe, they'd seen glaciated valleys, but they had never heard of trees like this. So this was really the catalyst for creating Yosemite and the National Park Service, ultimately, as special places. For us, it just seemed natural to come back to this grove, restore it to what it should be as far as a tranquil and serene experience."
Tuesday's tour for a small group of reporters provided the public its first glimpse of the grove since it was closed in the summer of 2015.
Among the biggest changes: Visitors must now enter the grove during peak visitation months on free shuttles that depart from Yosemite's south entrance via Highway 41, about two miles from the grove, and tram tours in the grove are a thing of the past.
As visitors disembark from park shuttles, they start down a newly-constructed boardwalk that takes them through giant sequoias that were once surrounded by asphalt, noisy shuttles and dumpsters.
There's wheelchair-accessible paths in the grove for the first time: Over half a mile of new boardwalks and trails coated with StaLok, a more natural semi-permeable pavement.
But not all asphalt was removed. A 32-space parking lot remains in the lower grove, reduced from the previous 110-space lot.
A new small parking lot was built about a quarter mile from the Grizzly Giant tree so visitors with handicaps can more easily get to the grove's main attraction.
There are around 300 new parking spaces just inside Yosemite south entrance, where park shuttles depart every 10 minutes during peak summer months. A gift shop in the grove was moved to this location, which also features a welcome center and more bathrooms.
The parking lot in the grove can be used by visitors during winter months when park shuttles aren't running. Vault toilets in the grove were replaced by flush toilets.
It's all an effort to balance accessibility with conservation. It's estimated that more than 1 million people visit the grove each year.
A descendant of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who advocated for Yosemite's protection, helped redesign trails in the grove to create the best "sense of arrival" experience for visitors.
Giant sequoias today are symbols of the National Park Service – the trees' cones featured on the hat bands and belts of park uniforms across the country.
The reopening of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias will be celebrated Thursday with a special ceremony attended by Yosemite employees and dignitaries.
"It should be no surprise it all started here in California," said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom after that ceremony.
Protecting giant sequoias
Years of planning went into the grove's restoration, with a final environmental impact statement released in December 2013.
As crews reconstructed one road in the grove – which remains so workers can get to cell phone towers at Wawona Point, and so visitors can reach the new handicap-accessible parking lot near the Grizzly Giant – they encountered roots from the well-known Bachelor tree growing in a culvert that needed to be replaced.
Instead of cutting the roots, engineers redesigned their plans and installed a new culvert above it. It's one of many examples of how the protection of sequoias was at the heart of the renovation.
Curbs were redesigned so water isn't diverted from the grove, and wetlands were restored. To that aim, hundreds of native plants and bushes were planted.
Hundreds of hazardous dead ponderosa and sugar pine trees, killed by bark beetle infestation, were cut down near trails and roads. There's hope that this opening of the canopy will help sequoia saplings grow with the additional sunlight.
Beatty said the new, more natural StaLok pavement, which resembles asphalt and replaces dirt trails in some areas, can help protect tree roots by reducing soil compaction and erosion on heavily-trodden trails.
She said some water can penetrate the new pavement and remain locked beneath as moisture.
Giant sequoias are the third longest-living tree species in the world – the oldest known are over 3,000 years old. Yosemite’s famous Grizzly Giant is believed to be more than 1,800 years old, "plus or minus a few centuries."
Giant sequoias are also among the world's largest by sheer volume.
Standing in the grove on Tuesday, Dean was inspired to describe work of the Park Service and Yosemite Conservancy with "an old proverb about partnerships."
"It takes work but if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, you go together," Dean said, "and I think it took both of our teams working together to pull this one off."